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Cover Story

Disassembly lines

Detroit author spent a year inside a stamping plant as it lay dying.

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: Photos: Paul Clemens., License: N/A

Photos: Paul Clemens.

This cavern once housed a press line.

Photo: Photos: Paul Clemens., License: N/A

Photos: Paul Clemens.

Budd as it was being disassembled.


Paul Clemens, born, raised and living in Detroit, authored Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant (Doubleday). It's his second book, following his well-received 2005 memoir Made In Detroit. This one is an insider's elegy for the working class, which Clemens analogizes "is to Detroit what immigrants are to New York, prospectors to California, and prisoners to Australia."

It's a doc of sorts, a time capsule of dying Americana and a testament to time-honored factory people.

During the wretched stretch of economic, political and environmental catastrophes that kicked off the 21st century, America sustained a pandemic of industrial plant closings. Workers followed job leads right out of the state. In Michigan alone, Clemens reminds us, more than 200,000 — blue-collar and ivory — fled the state. It continues. Hardest hit are single-industry towns, where everything, sometimes literally, revolves around a plant. The story Michael Moore told in 1989's Roger & Me, which looked at the relationship between General Motors and Flint, became a national narrative about 15 years later. In 2006, towns such as Newton, Iowa, whose largest employer was Whirlpool Corporation, were left reeling when its Maytag plant, the town largest employer by a long shot, closed. With the announcement of the Lockheed Martin plant closing in Eagan, Minn., just last Thursday, this pattern has stayed course.

In his late 30s, with a bit of composed scruff and a snug winter cap, Clemens is, conversationally, a switch hitter who shifts with ease from factory rat to academic.

Though he had no subject to begin the book, he was motivated to write a story that concerned the decline of the working-class condition.

Then, he read an all-too-familiar and fleeting Detroit newspaper headline: "Plant to Close."

"This time it was Budd's," Clemens says, "with an added apostrophe-S, just like everything in Detroit. Budd's was the German-owned and UAW-operated ThyssenKrupp-Budd stamping plant, a storied factory built in 1919, notable for producing the body of the classic Ford Thunderbird.

"I'm from the east side of Detroit, where everyone knows Budd's," Clemens says over coffee at a Mack Avenue Coney Island, a few miles east of the plant. "My grandfather's family lived a few blocks from the plant, my uncle lived one block over, and my grandmother went to high school a few blocks away. The plant's a patch of earth I'm quite familiar with — it's somehow meaningful. Though I didn't know it until I saw it, Budd's closing was exactly what I was looking for. Dumb luck, I'm tellin' ya."

Budd sits between two Chrysler plants. In its day, rows of industrial press lines would punch steel into all sorts of automotive shapes — roofs, hoods, chassis, you name it. A press line is a gigantic, clamoring machine, and Budd's largest press, the 16-line, was to be disassembled only to be rebuilt in central Mexico, where it'd effectively work for Chrysler, its old next door neighbor, stamping parts for the Dodge Journey. "The 16-line moved 1,800 miles to the southwest just so it can work for Chrysler. That gave me something natural to write toward," Clemens says.

We've all seen the headline: "Plant to Close." "But then what?" Clemens says.

After its stamping plant ceased operation, Clemens spent the better part of a year hanging out at Budd. He put in his time, investigating the process while befriending the ragtag bunch of guys tasked with the physical dismantling or auctioning off of Budd's industrial guts. While Clemens doesn't do physical labor — his work is the book — he does eventually become part of Budd's final year.

The hundreds of days he spent with Budd and gang shows in the writing, in the way Clemens moves through time while keeping us inside the dark, mammoth plant. Budd is dead, cold, under the attack of scrappers and the elements, slowly decomposing before his eyes — and ours. Of course, Clemens is not alone. His countless hours at Budd are spent fastidiously observing and conversing with a fantastic cast of characters — from local true grit hardhats (not keen on actually wearing them) and transients from all sorts of places, Brazil to Bosnia, Canada to backwoods Arkansas. These are the men, mostly riggers by trade, whose dirty job it is to unbuild America.

Clemens captures the practical and poignant analysis guys on the crew dish out, some illiterate, others fully aware of their role in this ironic industrial epoch, all of them wise in ways academia cannot access.

"I say it at the end of the book — most of what's good in this book, isn't mine."

Clemens is modest. Punching Out is written with rhythmic urgency. He's descriptive and poised. He examines every role played in the plant's dismantling, bringing the world of the rigger, trucker, security guard, company man and welders — "the guys" — to life. There's a point when Clemens feels as if he's "earned some sort of squatter's rights" at Budd. Though to a lesser degree, so too does the reader. When Clemens walks out of the plant for the last time, so do we.

Not that you'd notice; given its natural pacing, Punching Out doesn't offer any clear thesis. "I didn't set out to write a tale about corporate greed, or how NAFTA ruined things, or how the unions ruined things, or how a German company ruined things," he says. "Though that all ends up in there anyway, I just tried the best way I knew how to describe everything that I saw."

So what did Clemens see? He witnessed and recoded the ugly and phenomenal birth of a promising new American industry: the laborious and literal dismantling of manufacturing plants. It's a million-ton metaphor for a postindustrial country.

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